The United States is already at war with Iran; but for the time being the battle is being fought through surrogates.
That message was conveyed to me recently by a senior Jordanian intelligence official at his office in Amman. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, reflecting gloomily on the failure of the Bush administration’s various policies in the region.
He reserved his greatest contempt for the policy of encouraging democratic reform. “For the Islamic fundamentalists, democratic reform is like toilet paper,” he said. “You use it once and then you throw it away.”
Lest the point elude me, the official conducted a brief tour of recent democratic highlights in the region. Gaza and the West Bank, where Hamas, spurned by the State Department as a terrorist organization, was voted into power last spring and now represents the Palestinian government; Lebanon, where Hezbollah, similarly rejected by the United States, has become the most influential political entity in the country; and, of course, Iraq, where the Shiite majority has now, through elections, gained political power commensurate with its numbers.
In each case, the intelligence officer reminded me, the beneficiary of those electoral victories is allied with and, to some degree, dependent upon Iran. Over the past couple of months alone, he told me, Hamas has received more than $300 million in cash, provided by Iran and funneled through Syria. He told me what has now become self-evident to the residents of Haifa: namely, that Iran has made longer-range and more powerful rockets and missiles available to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. We’ll come back to the subject of Iraq.
Only a couple of days after my meeting in Amman, I visited a then-superficially peaceful Lebanon, where I was introduced to Sheik Nabil Qaouk, the commander of Hezbollah forces in the southern part of the country. Sheik Qaouk, who also holds the title of general, wears the robes and turban of a Shiite religious leader. Indeed, he studied religion for more than 10 years in the Iranian holy city of Qom. He received his military training in Iran and his wife and six children still live there.
Sheik Qaouk portrayed Hezbollah as being a purely defensive, Lebanese entity. But the more than 12,000 missiles and rockets that the sheik said were in Hezbollah’s arsenal were largely provided by Iran.
I asked about those newer, longer-range rockets mentioned by my Jordanian intelligence source. The sheik implicitly acknowledged their existence, but refused to talk about their capacities, with which the world has since become familiar. “Let our enemies worry,” he said.
When Sheik Qaouk talked about Israel and Hezbollah, his organization’s ambitions were not framed in purely defensive terms. There is only harmony between Hezbollah’s endgame and the more provocative statements made over the past year by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president. Both foresee the elimination of the Jewish state.
Are the Israelis over-reacting in Lebanon? Perhaps they simply perceive their enemies’ intentions with greater clarity than most. It is not the Lebanese who make the Israelis nervous, nor even Hezbollah. It is the puppet-masters in Tehran capitalizing on every opportunity that democratic reform presents. In the Palestinian territories, in Lebanon, in Egypt, should President Hosni Mubarak be so incautious as to hold a free election, it is the Islamists who benefit the most.
But Washington’s greatest gift to the Iranians lies next door in Iraq. By removing Saddam Hussein, the United States endowed the majority Shiites with real power, while simultaneously tearing down the wall that had kept Iran in check.
According to the Jordanian intelligence officer, Iran is reminding America’s traditional allies in the region that the United States has a track record of leaving its friends in the lurch — in Vietnam in the 70’s, in Lebanon in the 80’s, in Somalia in the 90’s.
In his analysis, the implication that this decade may witness a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq has begun to produce an inclination in the region toward appeasing Iran.
It is in Iraq, he told me, “where the United States and the coalition forces must confront the Iranians.’’ He added, “You must build up your forces in Iraq and you must announce your intention to stay.”
Sitting in his Amman office, he appeared to be a man of few illusions; so he did not make the recommendation with any great hope that his advice would be followed. But neither did he leave any doubts as to which country would benefit if that advice happened to be ignored.